Over the past decade one nation has emerged as the leading force for cinematic innovation, and originality – South Korea. It came to wider notice with Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy in 2003, and outstanding and elaborate vendetta movie which presented a distinctive visual style with squirm inducing violence. Preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Oldboy was the centre piece of what is now known as the Vengeance trilogy. Continuing with Wook’s filmography there is his feature debut Joint Security Area and his latest release I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay. Both of which are excellent in their own right for different reasons. Wook brought South-Korean cinema to a wider audience but it is the output of his contemporaries which strengthens the reputation: Ji-woon Kim’s ultra violent action thriller A Bitter Sweet Life; Ki-duk Kim’s meditative, spiritual and deeply philosophical Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring and his follow-up Three Iron. The list goes on and on, and if we dig a little deeper then we discover a relatively unsung talent, that of director Joon-ho Bong, director of the 2006 world cinema stealth hit The Host. But before The Host comes his sophomore film Memories of Murder, released in the same year as Oldboy, it was unfortunately eclipsed by Wook’s massive success. A shame as it is a far subtler film, which challenges the conventions of its genre in unexpected ways as this episode will hopefully illustrate.
The film is based on a true story, that of South Korea’s first recorded serial killer who from 1986 and 1991 raped and murdered some ten young women. We start at the beginning of the case with the discovery of the first victim, the first of the three detectives assigned to the case arrives at the crime scene, a crime scene where a group of children play nearby, disturb the evidence and ruin any forensics which the case may later rely on. This prologue has two striking qualities which permeate through the rest of the film, one is that the aforementioned detective Park Doo-Man is almost by himself, no uniformed officers, no photographers, no forensic experts; and what’s more to Doo-man this is totally ordinary, he doesn’t bitch and moan about how woefully under resourced they are, that’s just the way it is. He doesn’t comment about how so many police officers could be helping with the case are not because they’re busy suppressing protesters (although that is an important comment the film makes overall) Doo-man simply puts up and shuts up. The second quality to this scene is the sharp contrast. The corpse of a young woman lies decomposing by the side of a road, she has been tied up with her own underwear. She’s been raped, murdered and then left to rot, and a child has discovered the body. A disturbing prospect for any of us, but what does director Joon-ho do with this scene, does he infuse it with menacing music, does he have the local children watch numbly too young understand what has occurred? No, instead he injects a little light comedy as a young boy insists on parroting everything Doo-man says, Doo-man becomes irritated but the young boy continues; most of us remember doing this when we were children, but what we forget to often is how annoying it is. This opening scene is the perfect set-up for the film, as it gives us our highly unusual tone, and our unprivileged context. As the investigation continues, Doo-man and his idiotic and violently ill tempered partner Cho Yong-Koo are joined by an outsider Detective Seo Tae-Yoon who wants in on the case out of personal interest. It’s not his jurisdiction but the local police need all the help they can get. The detectives have differing techniques and principles. Doo-man and Yong-Koo are more used to finding the suspect and beating a confession out of them. They know who did it, it just a case of making them admit it, there are only a finite amount of suspect in this rural area and as Doo-man states early in the film “Korean detectives solve crimes not with their minds but with their feet”. Their blunt and unjust technique is contrasted by Tae-Yoon how proclaims that “documents never lie”, and believes in collecting evidence, his is of a new school of thought in this environment and not everyone subscribes to his more methodical approach. Interestingly his blind faith in evidence and documentation is proved to be just as niave as Doo-man’s blunt force approach. As the investigation continues, Doo-man begins to change, seeing Tae-Yoon’s logic and wanting to use the evidence to unequivocally convict rather than coerce confessions. As Doo-man sees reason, Tae-Yoon’s reason begins to dissolve as he grows increasingly frustrated by their lack of progress and decides to take the law into his own hands. The two protagonists slowly, gently and subtly swap mindsets over the course of the films narrative and this becomes Memories of Murder excellently drawn emotional subplot. Not rushed in the slightest, you truly witness the slow but fundamental changes within the characters.
In real life 300,000 police officers took part in the investigation and 3,000 suspects were interrogated. With this in mind, the script has been adapted relatively faithfully to the events, but also left out key elements to heighten the struggle our trio of detectives face. Rightfully so as to show or successfully imply the scope of the investigation would doubtlessly be impossible for a one hundred and thirty minute film. But the essential serial killer details are present and correct, the brutality of the crimes, the aforementioned use of the victim’s underwear for example, but this killer has an unusually intricate modus-operandi which includes only murdering on a rainy nights, only women wearing red clothing, and only when a particular song is playing on the radio. Such peculiar homicidal predilections would doubtlessly make it easy to prove such a killers identity if he was apprehended, but the case proves more difficult than any of the officers expected. Despite toning down the case in terms of scope, the film doesn’t veer too far away from its subject at any point, we barely glimpse the private lives of the protagonists, only Doo-man’s wife and family are briefly presented to us. The majority of the time we are left with the case, and the majority of this time is presented to us from the law enforcements point of view. Only briefly does the film switch to the victim or the killers view point, and this is restricted to a couple of occasions. If we were to compare Memories of Murder with another film the obvious choice would not be another South-Korean film, but rather David Fincher’s 2007 serial killer themed film Zodiac. The reasons for this comparison are very clear to anyone who has watched both films, firstly the true story element to the film, secondly their sprawling multi-protagonist nature, thirdly their attention to the detail of the investigation and fourthly the lack of speculation. Neither film switches perspective to see the killer in their habitat or stalking their prey, just like the detectives in both films the audience is presented with a possible suspect then given a massive question mark to hang over his head. This happens again and again and through this repetitive cycle of suspects we are forced to continually examine we begin to doubt our instincts, we begin to question if we can truly be right about any of them when we’re working on purely circumstantial and often contradictory evidence.
But where Memories of Murder truly excels above Zodiac is in its humour; this is a genre busting film if we were to honestly categorise it then the term Serial Killer Comedy springs to mind. It hardly seems possible that such a grim subject could extract so much humour from the scenario but extract it has. Not sharp one-liners, or cynical “gallows” humour which is heavily present in the detective genre but bona fide slap stick, farcical and ironic humour, the stuff of Chaplin or the Marx brothers. One stand out scene in particular features two detectives examining a crime scene at night only to be interrupted by the third detective approaching, startled they hide and observe him, the third detective is then interrupted by an unknown man (and later suspect) and he hides as well in a different spot. The suspect hears someone in the bushes and panics running away, the three detectives pursue. It doesn’t sound like much when described here but the sequence is done in such an absurd way that it’s impossible not to laugh. Other elements of the film which would ordinarily be viewed as nothing but serious are here exploited for comic effect; Cho Yong-Koo regularly beats confessions out of suspects, an action most of us could never defend or approve of, and the same is true in Memories of Murder, the difference is that Yong-Koo’s method of beating is to fly kick both feet into the torso of his victim often propelling them to the ground. The recurrence of this technique is hilarious because it quite frankly looks and is ridiculous. The three detectives at one point go out for a night of drinking along with their sergeant, the superior officer breaks up two detectives fight by randomly vomiting into a champagne bucket and then proceeding to chastise them. Doo-man is often so uncool it can’t be seen as anything other than comical, singing karaoke, having his penis fall out of his wife during sex, or just unable to control his crime scene while tractors run over crucial foot prints and children play with evidence. There is no glamour here, there are no sunglasses, fast cars or shoot outs, there are simply under qualified, under resourced and over worked coppers.
This is an intelligent film made for sophisticated audiences. Not intelligent because its subject matter is particularly heavy, or that the characters complex beyond comprehension or that the thematic exploration is particularly esoteric but simply because it is multi-layered and seamlessly dramatic and comic. Most film makers are under the belief that comedy and drama are mutually exclusive genres and that they should remain that way, but here Joon-hoo Bong has proved otherwise. The comedy strengthens the drama and vice a versa, but by the time we reach the third act, the situation is growing increasingly desperate, and in many respects the films emotional climax is profoundly improved by the earlier comedy, informing our pathos in the way only comedy can.
The film is not flawless by any means; the score is thankfully sparse but is too often heavily evocative and emotionally manipulative. The films shot composition is very interesting and again at odds with the genres typically predatory camera work by providing us with a series of often static shots (or with very little movement). The shots needed to be simple in many respects given the complexities of the films content, it would have suffered with experimental photography. However the cinematography suffers from over lighting in some cases, especially exterior night sequences which are occasionally far too bright when the only source of light is supposedly the moon and some street lamps.
But these are minor quibbles however for what is overall a truly original film and a shining example of the Korean new wave. Memories of Murder can be placed side by side or even above any of the other films mentioned at the start of this episode, even the more accessible Oldboy.